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Station names are about usability, not neighborhood identity

Metrorail station names are long. Long enough, in fact, that they're a source of frequent debate, whether it's comparing Metrorail station names to those of similar systems, or proposing new station names.

Photo by Daquella manera on Flickr.

The consensus among many transit advocates is that the long station names do little to aid wayfinding, and if anything are probably harmful to the usability of the Metrorail system. Now, WMATA has developed a new set of station naming guidelines.

These guidelines were previewed at this month's meeting of the WMATA Riders' Advisory Council, and a fervent debate on station names followed. When the issue of shortening certain station names was discussed, some RAC members proceeded to call for an elongated timeline, extensive outreach programs, public hearings, and more. There was even some discussion of not changing certain station names, out of a fear of political repercussions.

This perspective betrays a fundamental misunderstanding of the purpose of station names. Station names do not define communities; they serve to identify stations. If we didn't need the system to be usable by ordinary riders, we could just refer to stations by RTU code; then people on Twitter would complain about their commute from K06 to A03.

But most people haven't memorized every station's RTU code, so we need station names which have real meaning. In other cities, like New York and Chicago, station names are short, and generally derived from a station's location in the street grid: "23 St", or "Clark/Lake". Only the very most popular points of interest are included in station names, like 34 St—Penn Station, 42 St—Grand Central, or 81 St—Museum of Natural History.

What you will not find is a plethora of neighborhood names; there is no "SoHo Station", no "DUMBO Station". But that doesn't mean that SoHo, DUMBO, or dozens of other New York City communities do not exist; station naming isn't a value judgement of the surrounding communities, and station names don't define communities. In New York, station renamings do not require public hearings, are not carried out by committee, and in general are performed at the will of the agency (such as for Court Square and Jay Street/MetroTech).

WMATA's station naming process is broken. The station naming guidelines recently put forth by WMATA staff are fantastic. Unfortunately, the only way they'll be applied to existing stations is if the jurisdictions choose to submit new names for consideration. With station names having been made a politically sensitive issue, it's doubtful that any jurisdiction would choose to do so.

With revisions to the Metrorail map underway and an expectation that some station name changes may occur, let me put forth a modest proposal: considering that Lance Wyman will have to shoehorn all of these names on the map, wouldn't it make sense for him (and future designers) to have a say in station names?

Wouldn't it make sense for experts with a background in wayfinding to have a say in station names? Under the present system, WMATA can call in experts to help in applying the station naming guidelines, but their role remains limited to accepting or rejecting the names put forth for consideration by the jurisdictions.

The issue of long station names came up several times in the recent Washington Post chat with Mr. Wyman. Though he did not outright condemn long station names, Mr. Wyman recognized that they pose a usability and design concern:

As the station names have gotten longer over the years they become much more difficult to understand at a glance. That doesn't help.

Expanding on the previous answer, he re-introduced the idea of station icons, which were proposed for but never took root on the Metrorail system. When Paul Arthur and Lance Wyman collaborated on a signage redesign for the TTC, the use of station icons was proposed there, too. The redesign failed, but not because of the use of station icons.
I've just mentioned the long station names. As was intended in the design of the original map 40 years ago, the thought of station icons as well as names could give you an immediate clue as to important aspects of a station (historical, cultural, important landmark, etc.). The names could be short, the visual icon would communicate everyone's language. It would make the riding experience user friendly and help give a great city a visual index.
When asked directly about local neighborhoods campaigning to be added to station names, Mr. Wyman again did not speak to the issue outright, but rather reiterated the need to strike a balance which preserves usability, acknowledging that the long station names "make the overall Metro map less effective".

In closing, I would suggest that we take a back-to-basics approach with the next iteration of the Metrorail map. Give every station a name which meets the current guidelines, and an icon, too. Though the names and icons would be defined by a designer, the communities around each station won't be shut out. Rather than simply asking communities what they'd like to call their station (a process which has led to the inflation of station names), community input can be solicited in a way that preserves design principles—for example, using the process Paul Arthur proposed for the aforementioned TTC redesign:

These icons won't be imposed on subway users willy-nilly; they are to be developed station-by-station with community input. "The intention is to present the communities with some ideas," Paul Arthur explains, "and say, 'What of these do you like? And if you don't like any, tell us you don't like any,' so that the TTC for the first time will be able to go out to the communities it serves and say, 'Tell us what you would like.' "
Hopefully, through a combination of sensible design and community input, we can reign in Metrorail station names, and improve the usability of the system for everyone.
Kurt Raschke is an information technology professional and transit enthusiast interested in how technology can improve the usability of transit systems. A car-free resident of Silver Spring, he is a frequent user of Metrorail and Metrobus. He also blogs at Raschke on Transport. All views expressed here are his alone. 


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Can we move on from these station names posts. I think we have examined the subject long enough

by Mike on Jun 13, 2011 10:34 am • linkreport

WMATA's station naming process is broken.

Well, at least it fits in with the rest of the system

by Dave J on Jun 13, 2011 10:42 am • linkreport

Well said, Mike.

by Cavan on Jun 13, 2011 11:28 am • linkreport

@ Mike -

Hear, hear! I think this topic has been discussed ad nauseum on GGW.

by John M on Jun 13, 2011 11:39 am • linkreport

Well I agree generally with this post, I wouldn't go far as to say that station names don't define a neighborhood. The Van Ness-UDC station, for instance, defined the name for that neighborhood. I think this is an important point, especially in light of those awful Silver Line station names.

by Steven Yates on Jun 13, 2011 11:53 am • linkreport

Agreed w/ Steven.

And, I mean, the naming process isn't great, even if we ignore crappy existing names. The new Silver Line stations should strive toward imaginative names to give Tyson's a sense of place.

How do you account for the NY Ave station name? The entrances to the station are not terribly close to NY *or* FLA Ave.

I can almost forgive the names that are bloated due to the inclusion of nearby landmarks, but NY Ave didn't bother with that. "NoMA," "Near Northeast," or "Capitol Hill North," all of which would have been more appropriate (and finally solidified a name for the neighborhood). It would have even made more sense to include Trinidad or Eckington in the station name, even though they're further away. Gallaudet were apparently only included in the name as an afterthought.

by andrew on Jun 13, 2011 12:18 pm • linkreport

I was just thinking about station names this morning as I traveled from Franconia-Springfield-Frontier Dr-Windham Ave-NoVa Med Campus-Metro Park station to Rosslyn-Fort Myer Dr-Moore St-19th St-Wilson Blvd-I-66-US-29-US Marine Corps War Memorial-Dutch Carillion-Roosevelt Island-Key Bridge station via Old town Alexandria-King St-Diagonal Rd-Calahan Dr-Duke St-Carlyle-George Washington Masonic National Memorial, the airport and Pentagon-9/11 Memorial-I-395-Washington Blvd-Jefferson Davis Highway-Lady Bird Johnson Memorial Park that the names could be much longer. If only we tried. At some points the names could be so long that the train operators won't have time enough to pronounce the entire name between stations.

by Jasper on Jun 13, 2011 12:20 pm • linkreport

With all the maintenance problems facing WMATA, I find it surprising that they are finding the time to discuss something with not only such little sense of urgency as setting standards for station naming, but with little possibility of getting existing stations to conform to the new standard. Once all is fixed (or close to fixed) than I could see their taking time to work on this ... To spend time on it now is worrisome in that it indicates either they don't realize their are more pressing matters to deal with ... or don't feel themselves capable of handling those matters ... so are focusing on those matters they do feel themselves capable of handling. Either way ... not good.

by Lance on Jun 13, 2011 12:21 pm • linkreport

DC is not New York. While comparing DC to other systems may have it's place, it's inappropriate to hold difference from NYC as a primary reason to argue against a system.

by CB on Jun 13, 2011 12:23 pm • linkreport


I'm sure the marketing and communications folks aren't exactly qualified to grab a wrench and work on a train anyway - I'm not sure I see the resource drag.

As for the others complaining about this issue - it comes up because the discussion is ripe. We all know Metro needs to re-address its map due to the upcoming addition of the Silver Line. Since that has forced the issue, that means the time is now to put all of this other stuff on the table, too.

by Alex B. on Jun 13, 2011 12:25 pm • linkreport

Please please please: Can we have "U Street" station? No disrespect to the African American Civil War Memorial or to Cardozo, but please for the love of god, can WMATA change this? How about if GGW promises at least one station name post per week until the monstrosity is fixed.

Companies can bid on names like Verizon Center instead of Chinatown, but they had better pay a lot of money for the privilege, because giving up the simple and unique name Chinatown for that station would be tragic.

By the way, I just read the WMATA guidelines and they call for one- or two-word station names. So I guess what this post is looking for is a big "Amen" chorus to stop the endless debate and roadblocks put by the Riders Advisory Council (RAC).

Here you go: "Amen"

by Ward 1 Guy on Jun 13, 2011 12:31 pm • linkreport

@Alex, I'm sure the marketing and communications folks aren't exactly qualified to grab a wrench and work on a train anyway - I'm not sure I see the resource drag.

Actually, the dollars being spent to pay the marketing and communications folks could be better spent on fixing current pressing maintenance problems ... no? Wouldn't getting the trains to run better be the best 'marketing' effort?

by Lance on Jun 13, 2011 12:37 pm • linkreport

@ Ward 1:How about if GGW promises at least one station name post per week until the monstrosity is fixed.

How about a [Colbert mode on] 86-part weekly series [Colbert mode off] in which we take a vote on the naming of every single metro station in the system? We can do the stations randomly to keep the whole audience engaged, and send the final results to wmata.

Meanwhile, MV Jantzen visits each station to show its beauty. At the end, we'll have new names and MV will have enough material for a defining metro photobook!

by Jasper on Jun 13, 2011 12:38 pm • linkreport

I do think it is interesting than most WMATA posts now are about names or maps, and not something more concrete. Unsuck seems to be the go-to place if you're looking for something more.

There isn't a big campaign this year to kick over more money to WMATA either.

by charlie on Jun 13, 2011 12:51 pm • linkreport

I'm glad this issue gets a lot of play here. We all may be in agreement that names are too long but that hasn't stopped certain ancs from pursuing name changes as the Park View ANC just voted to last week. It should be a clean cut denial but would anyone really be surprised if it was granted? I hope its denied because if they can't even enforce the guidelines with NEW requests how will we ever go about shortening the previously expanded names. I am sure Adams Morgan and others will cry foul.

by Johnny on Jun 13, 2011 1:03 pm • linkreport

"we could just refer to stations by RTU code; then people on Twitter would complain about their commute from K06 to A03."

This made me think of some old Specials lyrics:

I met a girl from Area Three
She said she worked in a chicken factory
By two o'clock we were Brahms and Liszt
I had to walk her home through Area Six

Although the part about waking up and realizing he's not in Area Six, but rather Area Seven, should have come to me during the redistricting fight.

by TM on Jun 13, 2011 1:20 pm • linkreport

I'll propose that, dollar for dollar, communication and design investments do more to improve a system's usability and appeal than any other kind of spending.

A tale of two Metro bus schedules:



by David R. on Jun 13, 2011 1:43 pm • linkreport

@Jasper - I think you forgot about the "Shuttle Bus" Service to Leesburg at Rosslyn-Fort Myer Dr-Moore St-19th St-Wilson Blvd-I-66-US-29-US Marine Corps War Memorial-Dutch Carillion-Roosevelt Island-Key Bridge Station. Please be sure to properly append Leesburg to the station in the future.

by Matt Glazewski on Jun 13, 2011 1:44 pm • linkreport

Station names are about both neighborhood identity and transit station identity. You just have to balance the two objectives, and not allow the station names to be modified to include every possible neighborhood identifier.

E.g., Georgia Ave.-Petworth is fine.

U Street-African American Civil War Memorial-Cardozo is not. It should just be U Street or U Street.

New York Ave.-Florida Ave. is not fine because as someone has already pointed out, it's not at either of those places. And, calling it NY Ave. is really bad for people not from the area. They think they can get out here and walk to hotels on NY Ave. NE, including the ones at Bladensburg. (I've had to try to give people directions about this, multiple times.)


It's just the WMATA Board can't capitulate. They have to think of themselves as stewards of the transit system's identity and branding and make decisions accordingly.

by Richard Layman on Jun 13, 2011 2:31 pm • linkreport

For the record, this policy is NOT NEW. Metro is asking the board to add new items to the policy, but the 18 character limit has been there from the beginning.

I think it is essential that this topic continues to be covered until the new map comes out. And I agree, the station names should not be the results of a political process but the decisions should be made by professionals through local and regional focus groups.

In the short term, please contact your locally elected representatives or a WMATA board member from your jurisdiction and tell them that you want to "restore sanity" to Metrorail station names.

by MDE on Jun 13, 2011 4:50 pm • linkreport

"Can we move on from these station names posts. I think we have examined the subject long enough "

Here, here!

It's been discussed ad nausem, almost as much
as the maps.

by ceefer66 on Jun 14, 2011 7:53 am • linkreport

"I think you forgot about the "Shuttle Bus" Service to Leesburg at Rosslyn-Fort Myer Dr-Moore St-19th St-Wilson Blvd-I-66-US-29-US Marine Corps War Memorial-Dutch Carillion-Roosevelt Island-Key Bridge Station. Please be sure to properly append Leesburg to the station in the future."

Don't forget the daily nonstop Alaska Airlines flight to Seattle from Reagan Airport, meaning the stop there should be "Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport/Seattle-Tacoma" or something like that.

by Rich on Jun 14, 2011 9:29 am • linkreport

I just went to Chicago a couple of weeks ago. There are four el stops named "Damen" in wildly different sections of the city. Only one of those was in Wicker Park, but it was apparently up to me to figure out where Wicker Park was. How is that informative? How does that improve wayfinding?

by J.D. Hammond on Jun 16, 2011 5:05 am • linkreport

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